Our flight arrived in Kolkata just after 5AM.
Prior to departing the United States we had learned about the extreme weather conditions we would be dealing with traveling to India in May. Tripadvisor.com had this to say: “April to June, Kolkata is at its hottest. Its humid, the sun is blazing, and it’s almost impossible to sightsee during the daytime. After June the rains set in, and more often than not the heavy monsoon rain floods the streets and throws traffic out of gear. However, if you can brave the rains and the humidity, Kolkata during the monsoons is a unique experience. But be prepared to wade your way through water back to your hotel.” Careful consideration went into packing to determine what clothes would feel light for the weather, yet cover enough skin to be mindful to respect Indian culture. (Following our study abroad program the school recognized the timing and flipped the program to traveling in December instead.)
I also personally prepared for the overcrowded city I would encounter once I learned Kolkata’s population reaches just over five million people. I have had several occurrences of mild panic attacks in areas that have been dense with people. It is especially bothersome when people are moving in various directions as opposed to one or two directions like a New York City sidewalk. In the past my method of dealing with this anxiety has been to either freeze or flee. I froze in the middle of LAX customs baggage claim in a rush to get to a connecting flight. I stood still holding my breath waiting for the crowd to clear before gathering my belonging to move along. My backpacking buddies hung onto my clothes as I fled through the pack of Tour De France observers after watching Lance Armstrong finish his seventh win on the Champs-Elysees. I think they appreciated my panic in the moment to be some of the first to get back to the subway after the race. Needless to say, I knew fleeing nor freezing would be helpful on this trip and I mentally prepared myself to cope with the densely populated city.
The thing I hadn’t given much thought to and quickly realized my American ideals needed to adjust, was the traffic. Since we arrived so early in the morning neither the heat nor crowds were out in full effect yet, however, straight from the airport I began learning how different the streets would be in India. Here is my list of the top six items required for assimilating to Kolkata traffic.
1.) Any and all modes of transportation are acceptable on the road. Cars, cabs, trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and people all share the streets. Some vehicles are very nice, while most appear to be on the verge of breaking down. The rickshaws can be motorized with a driver in the front and row of seats in the back, they also can be the seats pulled by a man on foot or on a bike. As if the types of vehicles to look out for on the roads weren’t enough there is also the occasional cow meandering through the streets. The cows are sacred, they do not belong to anyone and are not to be disturbed. Crossing the street was like watching a reality game of Pacman. People would jump out in front of an aged bus and yellow cab, then have to weave through a scooter and a bike in the next step. The chaos took some getting used to.
2.) There are no apparent traffic guidelines. While lanes are drawn in some places they are typically not used, especially when it came to high traffic areas. Imagine your five o’clock rush hour commute with three lanes of traffic and cars inching their way bumper to bumper. In Kolkata drivers would pile in six vehicles across in a quilted pattern, cutting each other off in an emergent push to get to the front. Scooters, bikes and rickshaws squeezing through the gaps of the larger vehicles to create an illogical network of haphazardly moving parts. Only this wasn’t rush hour – this was everyday, all day.
3.) American ideals of standards for vehicle safety needed to be dismissed. The taxi cab speedometer appeared to be out of service for the last decade as they jumped around relating to the bumps in the road rather than an accurate reading of speed. In America we caravan groups of people traveling from one location to the next, in India everyone piles in together. It wouldn’t be rare to see a group of eight riding in one cab, all on top of one another in the front and back seat. I’d even seen whole families riding on a scooter together, mom carrying baby on the back and dad with tot on his lap. No car seats, no helmets, and no seat belts.
4.) The honking. Every driver honks about everything, it seemed like honking was the secondary language next to Bengali in Kolkata. I found myself video taping rides through the streets because I never felt I could describe the chaos and the noise to my friends and family when I got home. I wanted to make them suffer through the recordings so that they could minutely relate to the annoyance I had suffered during the trip. Saving my sanity was the fact that the mission where we stayed drown out most of the sounds from the streets and the evening meditation chants gave me an alternate focus for my battered ears.
5.) The need to be aware of the mad cab drivers. Our group of students frequently chartered vehicles for planned excursions and day trips. These were set up by our instructor who grew up in Kolkata and was able to make arrangements speaking Bengali. There were also opportunities when we had to utilize cabs to ride from the airport, train stations or to more spur of the moment outings. Our instructor was able to communicate locations to cab drivers even when we all didn’t ride together, other times it was up to us to find ways to get to where we wanted to go without any language assistance. Some drivers couldn’t understand our requests and were illiterate as well, resourcefully driving us around until he was able to coax a pedestrian who could read to help tell the driver where we wanted to go. Very few drivers could speak English, and one who did I will never forget. I got into his taxi with three of my peers from a train station returning to the mission late into the evening. We probably should have jumped out of his car after he struck another car with his hand yelling at the other driver in a jam leaving the parking area. Based on his questions, it felt as though the hate he had towards Americans he would be taking out on us. The car we were supposed to be following with our teacher and peers was no where in sight, in fact the usually crowded streets were empty and it was frighteningly quiet with this mad driver.
6.) No women allowed. Women do not drive and they do not help. In India a car is really a luxury and most people who can afford luxuries can also afford drivers. There are always exceptions, this is not a rule, it just is very unique to eight female students who together drive eight cars. I noted how women do not help because there was one small bus we rode in as we visited sites in a rural area of West Bengal. The bus was in rough shape and needed to be pushed in order to get it running. By the end of the day our driver left the headlight out in the dark just to prevent it from completely breaking down. Although us tough girls offered to help with pushing we were always denied, even if it took several minutes to recruit enough men to get the job done.